What Breastfeeding a 4 Year Old Really Looks Like

Often times when people hear that a mother is nursing her four year old, they equate it with nursing a newborn,  but that’s not what breastfeeding a 4 year old really looks like.  Weaning is a process that naturally takes years.  What this looks like in real life is a gradual decrease in both frequency and duration of breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding a 4 year old

I have had the opportunity to be a part of this process twice.  In fact, I am still part of my youngest child’s weaning process.  When my babies were newborns they were both incessant nursers.  Their little bellies needed almost constant nourishment, and while it was exhausting, there was also something beautiful about how natural and biological meeting their needs was.

By the time my kids reached toddlerhood, their physical activity and exploration increased, and their time at the breast decreased.  Sometimes they would nurse every hour, and other times a whole morning would go by without a nursing session.  When they got hurt, were sick, or were feeling disconnected, they sought comfort from nursing.  This was a gift for me as their mother, because often times I did not know what else to do.

Not only does breastfeeding provide nutrition and immunity benefits for as long as it is done, but it provides emotional connection, too.

As we bid farewell to toddlerhood, my children were mostly nursing in the morning and at night. By the time each of my children were 3.5, and without much fanfare, I one day  noticed that they had gone for a couple of days without nursing.  The realization was surprising to me in both cases- how could I go from having so much of my day occupied by breastfeeding, to not noticing that multiple days had gone by without nursing at all?

Because this process happened naturally, I did not have feelings of sadness or bittersweet.  Instead, I was able to accept it for what it was- my child getting older and getting their nutrition and emotional comfort from something other than me.

My youngest child will be 4 in a few months.  She still nurses most nights before bed and once or twice throughout each day.  What is different now though, is that we can verbally communicate.  If my daughter wants to nurse, but it is not convenient for me, I can ask her to wait.  Most often she obliges.  If she does not, I know that she is desperate and really needs the soothing connection of nursing with her mom.  This was also true of my son, who is almost six.

I cannot remember the last time my son nursed.  I am not even sure that I can say he is officially done.  If he sustains a major injury, or is very sick, he may ask to nurse again. Many will ask “will you let him?”  My answer is;  “of course I will”.  At some point he will lose his ability to latch and obtain milk, and I suppose it will only be then that we can say with certainty he is done.

What does breastfeeding a four year old really look like?  It is infrequent, short sessions that can happen at a mutually convenient time.  They look like a mother comforting her child, and providing him or her with the continued and amazing benefits of natural comfort and protection.

Jennifer Andersen writes about breaking out of societal parenting norms to live authentically with our children. She offers insights, tips, and observations on her own blog, OurMuddyBoots.com, Parenting Outside the Lines.

About Jennifer Andersen

Jennifer Andersen
Jennifer Andersen found her way to attachment parenting when her first child was born. Leaving him in the well appointed nursery went out the window the moment they met. She began advocating for babies, children, and families when she realized that other parents felt alone in trusting their intuition too. Jennifer shares her own experiences and thoughts on her own blog; Our Muddy Boots.

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25 comments

  1. MY 9 month old son is a very good nursing little guy. I do not see him ending his breastfeeding anytime soon. With my older daughter, my work schedule did not allow me to nurse her as long as I would have liked to, mostly because she was my first and I was concerned about where my career would go if I kept insisting on pumping breaks which were already well passed what my boss had agreed to. I decided to quit that place of employment and stay home with my daughter when she was 14 months old. Unfortunately between those two months my supply had dried up.
    Fast forward to when my son was 4 months old. Older child had been suffering from exczema and allergies since she was weaned. She was very interested in nursing again, and since I was a stay at home at this point we made the decision to allow her to nurse again. Her skin cleared up, her allergies diminished, and her bond with her brother is amazing. Nursing may not have worked out the way I had hope for her initially, but now she is in such a better place with her health, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
    I never in a million years would have seen myself allowing my child to nurse again after almost 2 years, but it is what it is and parenting is clearly not black or white. We know what we are doing is right for our children, and that is the most important thing. We have no idea when nursing for the children will end, but Im sure it will end much sooner for her than the baby.

    • It’s so encouraging to hear such a beautiful experience…I’m about to return to work and very nervous about how I’m going to continue feeding my 4 month old son. I’m determined to continue and your experience has served to spur me on!

  2. My son nursed until he chose to wean himself at 4 1/2 years old. By that time it was pretty intermittent, with days
    Passing without nursing, and the sessions extremely short and always at night. I was pregnant with our second child, and he was present for the birth (at home). After meeting his baby sister he announced “mommy, i’m giving all the milk to Rowan so she can grow big and play with me.” And that was that. Done. He did ask if he could have some boobe when she was 6 weeks old, so he tried but he had forgotten how to nurse. Our nursing journey was unexpectedly long but had such a perfect ending, and was so special and valuable in so many ways. My heart aches for those mothers and babies whose nursing journey is ended due to external social or familial expectations.

  3. My daughter is now 14 months old and still breastfeeds in the morning, sometimes after I get home from work, before bed, and usually once in the middle of the night. At first I had said I was going to breastfeed until she was six months as a goal to reach then when she turned six months I extended my goal to a year. At a year I had her weaned down to our schedule now and was going to wean her completely. But then I got all upset and realised not only was I not ready emotionally but my daughter wasn’t either. So now I’ve decided I will let her decide when she’s done. It’s so much less stressful and I enjoy it so much. It s the one thing we have together that nobody else can have with her, such an untouchable bond. I love it. My doctor joked with me saying she’ll be in high school before I quit. Although it won’t be that long when it happens it will be because we were ready and not before. Congrats everyone of you for breastfeeding your babies especially for as long as you have. Not a lot of mothers breastfeed these days so it’s good to see so many of you doing it. It’s crazy to see how deeply I feel about it when I was so unsure when I was pregnant and trying to decide if I had it in me to breastfeed. I’m the first in the last three generations of my family to breastfeed. Once again congrats everyone it can be difficult at times but if so worth it.

  4. This is such a great blog! We used to joke that my son would have won the nursing Olympics if they had a competition. He was a very intense nurser and weaned at 5 years 9 months. I remember the last time we nursed while I checked email, will always remember that. I thought we were done at 5 years so we had a weaned party with a boob cake but he wasn’t quite done. He is now 12 years old and a serious athlete, he is extremely strong and talented. He will be skating on TV at the US national figure skating championships this January 2016. Also is a hockey phenom! My daughter is 4.5 years and still nursing though with less intensity compared to her brother at that age. I think girls might have a less intense nursing frequency since they are more mature for her age. She is also a super athlete as well! Gotta go nurse now!

  5. Thank you for this article! I have 3 3/4 year old who still nurses as much as he did when he was 1.5! He still nurses in the morning for a long time, before nap, after nap, usually a few other times throughout the day and then before bed, and also still throughout the night. We are able to talk about it and he states he just loves num num and he loves that it’s with mommy. When I have tried night weaning, he gets extremely angry/sad and then has a complete melt down and seems to feel shame that I state he is old enough to sleep through without needing num num, by the time he settles its hours and no one sleeps. So, this is a passion of mine is to raise awareness of nursing older toddlers/preschoolers, especially those kids who are “high needs” or as I like to say “sweetly sensitive.” My son has always nursed incessantly and has always desired deep connection emotionally, but he thrives intellectually and socially. There is no way to know before you have kids how much they will teach you!

    • Hi Kristin! I’m so glad to know I’m not alone. My son just turned 3 and nurses as frequently as your son. He also has the same reaction whenever I’ve tried to deny/distract him from it. It seems to do more harm than good and that is my indication that he truly does need it and is not yet ready. I was thinking that maybe it was this hard for every mom when she tries to wean but I think you may be right about the personality type (love the sweetly sensitive vs high needs). Each time I’ve tried to cut down (mainly at night) my son has a very difficult time going back to sleep and then wakes up more frequently afterwards…agitated and upset. He also becomes more needy during the day and I become exhausted very quickly! I would much rather nurse and have him happy and feel that bond then force a painful separation when he is not ready. I would love if you would post any updates to your situation…I am curious to know what my nursing future may hold with my own “sweetly sensitive” son. Most people don’t understand that breastfeeding and weaning are not the same for everyone. It is difficult coming under criticism especially from those you love when you know in your heart you are doing what is right for your child. Stay strong and follow your intuition! Yay to all the strong ladies out there! :-)

  6. My son is 3 and 1/2 year old and he is still nursing. It’s wonderful we are so bonded. I thought i was the only one nursing my 3 year old. One of my friend make foud at me saying it’s not good it’s nasty. When I read your article it gave me courage and i am very happy that i am nursing my son. He is smart and he hardly get sick. He nurses at nights and 2 times a day. Thank you for your courage. GOD BLESS YOU

    • I nursed my son even when I have my second baby when he was three. I continued after birth giving and he only weaned off breast milk close to 4 years old. He is now a wonderful kid who is healthy, confident, independent and sociable to people around him. I’m glad with the decision to nurse him til he is ready to wean off, now I’m still nursing my second baby upon her turning two years of age. I hope the same benefits for her as well.

  7. I breastfed my son for over four years, he weaned himself naturally. Morning and night sometimes during the day. My husband thought he was too old. I had a neighbor that saw us on the porch and she had a fit.

  8. My husbznd has been telling me ever since my daughter was 1 that I should just stop tbT. But she loves it so. I have a medical condition and I wil have to take meds thatwill nkt allow me to nurse. Shell be3 end of august and I keep telling her shes a biv girl. But part of me knowi g shes our ladt is so sad. Please pray for us. Shell be fine butforced weaning will be rough for us both

    • Ladies, ladies, please relax!! Don’t stop!! First of all, it’s none of your neighbor’s business. Second, your husband is just worried. Tell him in a loving way that there’s nothing wrong with your little one to look for comfort, because that’s all it is. Btw I snuggled up with my 5 yr old son for naps. Yup, I did! Eventually he had enough on his own! And I’m not ashamed to admit it. Now he is almost 14 and a normal healthy very confident young man and not a “Mama’s boy” lol!

  9. I’m so happy to read this, my daughter just turn 3 and I still breast feed her, I completely agree with everyone who breast feeds toddlers, it’s more of comfort and bonding. They only remain little for a few years, as they get older they’ll understand. I don’t think that’s children’s ought to be forced to stop breast feeding. My daughter is happy to feed and I’m ready to feed so what’s the rest of them got to do. I’ve be through tough time when ppl keep advising that it’s bad and I ought to stop soon. They should probably learn to mind their own business. We’ll done ladies, I react your choice.

  10. I am still nursing my 4 year old son. He is super happy to nurse at night and sometimes during the day.
    We can communicate about it and he knows this is a special time with him and mommy. I nursed my older son for 3 years and only stopped because I had to take medication. I am so happy to read this! Every one of you is an amazing, selfless mother. Beautiful!

  11. I am so happy to ready your blog. My daughter is 3.5 years and still nurse. I hear all the time from people its time for her to stop. In fact only two nights now i started to wean her but she is most upset. At night i have to tell her it hurts and mommy need to give it a rest. She gets really irritable and sometimes find it difficult to fall asleep.

    After reading this i am not going to stop her again unless she wants to stop.

    It feels really good knowing that it is her comfort, but i must admit i was worried if i don’t try to stop her if she would ever stop.
    Thank You.

    • Hi Indy!
      How are you going now?
      I am in the same situation. Haven’t fed my 3,5 yo boy for a night and a day. And he has been asking, and it breaks my heart to refuse :(
      Beaitifull article! I really miss our special time. And feel like just keep feeding him.
      Thank you.

  12. My son is 4 & 1\4 and still nurses at bedtime, when were just sitting down and relaxing and watching tv or something else, if hes upset or sick (which hasnt happened but 1 × every year of his lifebesides this year and i contribute that to nursing (he hasnt been sicked at all this year

  13. The primary function of women’s breasts is feeding infants but they are also a sexual signal and while we share the feeding function with other apes, the signal is purely human.

    Societies differ in what they regard as titillating but in ours women’s breasts have been prominent for centuries and evolution has shaped them and programmed men to respond.

    Yet I despair at the attitudes of sexually repressed individuals who cannot separate sex from function and are happy for breasts to be visible for drooling men, but not for feeding a baby.

    Mothers must be allowed to breastfeed in public and when I see them on a long flight, say, it just looks so natural and “prudes” should get a life – or at least stop staring at the girl.

  14. This makes me want to fight harder against my husband and inlaws to continue breastfeeding my 4.5 year old. I never thought I would even be breastfeeding a toddler (I ran out of milk with my oldest son). He absolutely still wants the milk bedtime and morning. I refused mornings and only let him keep the nighttime but I was thinking to get rid of it completely. The family is making a big deal about it as they believe breast are only sexual lol! They always give me crap as neither of us lie about it and then again we have to listen and defend of many years now. They never read any articles I send just have their opinions. This is for him. Thank you!

  15. This was the perfect for me… My son turned 4 today and I dont feel he wants to wean. The communication part is so true, I can tell him we cant do it now and he usually laughs and says ok.

  16. Loren Landicho Pastrana

    I am glad to read this. My daughter is turning is 4 on January and shows no signs of weaning- she will go to school next year though so maybe more time away from home will make her stop :) I am quite ready to quit but I don’t want to force her. I have waited this long. What’s a few more months to leave the decision to her?:)

  17. Beautifully and perfectly put. I could not have expressed it any better. My daughter will be four at the end of October. I breastfeed her nearly every night, but sometimes during the day as well. She like to cuddle up and get into the typical baby positions : ). I’m actually tired of it. However, I know she needs it… the ‘natural comfort and protection’ you mentioned. Thank you

  18. It is so nice to read posts about feeding children that are not 6 months old. Today my health visitor basicly told me to stop breastfeeding my son at all during the day. only 1 in morning and last feed at night and all other times refuse him milk. Its so nice to read that when kids are ready to do this they will on their own. Thank you for your story it helped me today to keep feeding my son when he wants it appreciated thank you xxx